It is the first time since the Second World War that the race has been held in the county

Credit: PA

Cambridge crews have home advantage for next year’s Boat Race after organisers were forced to move the showpiece away from the River Thames.

A three-mile stretch of the Great River Ouse between Ely and Littleport in Cambridgeshire has been chosen in part due to concerns over the safety of Hammersmith Bridge.

The green West London landmark, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, is almost halfway into the race, and has been closed for 18 months because of structural problems.

It is the first time since the Second World War that the Great River Ouse will host the race.

In 1944, it was won by Oxford, but the Great Ouse is now established territory for Cambridge’s men and women’s teams who use the facilities at Ely for training. The likely stretch of the Great River Ouse is a mile shorter than the Putney to Mortlake course. It also has fewer bends.

Organisers say the decision to relocate – after this year’s race was cancelled – "reflects the challenge of planning a high-profile amateur event around continuing COVID related restrictions as well as uncertainty regarding the safety and navigation" of the bridge.

For hundreds of crews, the Hammersmith Bridge has is seen as a critical point in the race as the boat in front by then wins four times out of five. A Canadian rower who led Oxford to victory against Cambridge in 2006 named his son Hammersmith.

The usual throngs of spectators will be asked to stay at home due to ongoing concerns around Covid-19 at the new venue. East Cambridge District Council, and the Environment Agency, confirmed they are working with the Boat Race Company (BRCL) to create "a safe event for the local community, crews, and coaches, as well as the volunteers and contractors helping to stage the races".

Dr George Gilbert, chair of BRCL’s Race and Operations Committee, said: "Organising sport safely and responsibly is our highest priority and moving the Boat Race to Ely in 2021 enables the event to go ahead in a secure environment. While we are sad not to be able to welcome the usual hundreds of thousands of spectators along the course, we will be inviting our communities and wider audience to get involved via our social media channels, and to enjoy the historic event on the BBC."

The crews have so far had two months on the water before the November lockdown in England. The student athletes then began training at home on their rowing machines, committed to gaining their place in one of the crews to race in April 2021.

The annual Oxford-Cambridge University Boat Race was first raced in 1829 and is now one of the world’s oldest and most famous amateur sporting events, offering an unrivalled educational experience to the students who take part. 2021 will see the 166th Men’s Boat Race and the 75th Women’s Boat Race.

The Ouse has been home to Cambridge for decades, with  the university opening a £5 million boathouse at Ely in 2016. The BBC will televise next year’s races.

All river traffic under Hammersmith Bridge was banned in August after larger cracks were discovered. Other options on the Thames had been considered, including a stretch from near St Paul’s school in Barnes to the University of London boathouse in Chiswick.

Seb Pearce, the chair of Oxford University Boat Club, had no complaints about the switch in an email seen by The Telegraph.

"After exploring a number of alternative locations we have decided to hold next year’s race in Ely and now have the full support of the BBC and local authorities," he told members. "Our priority is to ensure that a race happens and we feel that this location offers us the best chance of staging a televised race in an environment that is safe for the athletes and those that are required to make the race happen….Covid continues to cause significant disruption to the squads but the athletes have been training hard in preparation for the race and they are particularly excited about trying to turn Cambridge over on their home water."